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The Evolution of Kayaking, With Bruce Lessels

By 829 Dev

Man kayaking through rough rapids

How a person gets involved with something as exciting as whitewater can end up being an entertaining and interesting story. I interviewed Bruce Lessels, President of Zoar, to dive into how he got involved with the sport and how it has changed over the years. His answers made me chuckle and, at the same time, gave me a wider perspective on the growth of the industry. Check out what he had to say!


Q: “How did you discover whitewater?”

A: “I discovered whitewater on an ill-fated canoe trip to the Saco River in New Hampshire around 1974.  The trip ended with us in a laundromat drying our soaked clothing after multiple swims and a few wrapped boats…  I’ve been trying to get it right ever since then.”


Q: “How have you seen the sport advance?”

A: “Basic river moves are largely the same now as when I first learned to paddle. We’re better at explaining them and more paddlers can do them well now in part because the boats are much better, and in part because the standards of technique are higher.  In the 1990’s, boat designs started to depart from long-accepted standards (slalom boats) creating growth in the sport and an increasingly extreme image for whitewater boating. One other change that has impacted whitewater boating significantly since I started, has been the use of the internet for water level readings.  Before internet-reported gauges there were some rivers that had gauge readings you could access by phone via a tone-based code and others where you could call a dam keeper, but mostly you’d watch the weather forecast on TV and make your best guess about where the rain was and how much the rivers had responded. It wasn’t unusual to get skunked or end up running a river at a very low level when your guess didn’t pan out.”


Q: “How about socially?”

A: “On the social side, whitewater boating was a family activity when I first started paddling in the mid-1970’s.  You would often see kids and adults paddling together in tandem canoes on class II runs.  I would guess there’s more participation now among the age group from 18 to 30 and less participation from those 50 and older than there was when I started.  Paralleling that change in age-group participation, it seems that there’s more emphasis on class IV-V runs and less on class II-III runs.”  


Q: “How has it changed for you personally?”

A: “Among my favorite aspects of whitewater boating now are:

– virtually unbreakable boats that come from the manufacturer with plush outfitting

– much better beta about rivers

– the greater integration of paddling into the culture at large


A few things I don’t miss about the olden days?

– making my own paddle jacket, sprayskirt and PFD

– peeling hardened resin off my arms after a boat repair session

– calling around for a ride to the river before I had my driver’s license”


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